Blair backs 'retreat' from mergers plan

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(First Edition)

TONY BLAIR, Labour's home affairs spokesman, and Tory MPs welcomed Kenneth Clarke's statement as a retreat from his plans for cutting the number of police forces from 43 to about 25.

With Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, who opposed moves towards a national police force, sitting by the Home Secretary, Mr Blair said it 'has all the hallmarks of the worst possible Cabinet compromise'. He went on: 'I welcome his decision to back away from a headlong rush to big police forces. Does it mean his proposals to bring the number down to 25 are permanently shelved and there will be no compulsory mergers in the future?'

Mr Clarke told MPs his other changes which he described as 'the most important reform to the police in 30 years' would bring pressure for amalgamations in time.

'I have no fixed views about what the right number of forces should be and I have no plans to use the powers in the 1964 Act to amalgamate forces,' he said. The Home Secretary also announced that the statutory procedures for amalgamations would be simplified.

Mr Blair welcomed the funding changes, which were overdue, and the creation of a police authority for London. But he said the appointment of authority chairmen and members by the Home Secretary was a significant shift of power to Whitehall, leading to more remote police authorities. 'Aren't we going too far down the road to centralised policing which will be out of touch and out of reach?' he asked.

'At a time when crime is running out of control, when the existence of burglary, theft and criminal damage is making lives hell for many people, these are the issues upon which the public want to concentrate the energies of the Government. He would gain greater support if he spent less time attacking the responsibilities of the police and more time on the responsibilities of government.'

Mr Clarke said he was not suggesting the centralisation of the police service. 'I propose to give more autonomy to the police . . . I propose to give them the money, set standards and then hold them to account,' he added.

For the Liberal Democrats, Robert Maclennan, said it was 'an ill-digested approach. . . dribbling out half-thought-out proposals allegedly strengthening local autonomy while actually increasing the power of the Home Secretary'.